Depending on who was talking during Monday night’s Arizona Senate debate, the choice in the race comes down to an ingrained politician or a man unfit for elected office.
The battle for Arizona’s open Senate seat has become a fight over each candidates’ character in the closing weeks of the race. With polls tightening, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake has raised questions about his opponent’s fitness for the U.S. Senate by dredging up allegations against Democrat Richard Carmona of anger-management issues and trouble working with women. Carmona has responded by portraying his opponent as a desperate politician with a penchant for dirty attacks.
That dynamic was on full display in the second debate, where Flake attempted to put Carmona’s character on trial. The question of who is more fit to serve in the Senate was a running theme throughout it.
“First of all, you’ve gotta have the temperament,” Flake said, responding to a question about how to move beyond partisanship in Washington, a subtle nod to allegations about Carmona’s fiery temper. “You’ve gotta have the temperament to work with both sides. And that’s been my history.” Flake also noted that he never makes his votes “personal.”
In going after Carmona, Flake also took on his opponent’s impressive resume — as a decorated veteran, law enforcement officer and former U.S. surgeon general — which even Republicans admit is a boon to Carmona’s candidacy. “Carmona has a great resume. I don’t think anybody disputes it,” Flake said. “But a resume is not a plan.”
Carmona responded to the character attacks with some of his own, calling Flake a “chronic politician” who’s running his campaign “in the gutter.” When the issue of immigration came up, Carmona called Flake a “typical politician” who changes his position to win an election.
Early in the debate, the candidates addressed the attacks against Carmona that are now dominating news about the race. Last week, the Flake campaign released a brutal attack ad featuring Cristina Beato, Carmona’s boss while he was surgeon general. Beato accused him of banging angrily on her door in the middle of the night. Carmona has “issues with anger, with ethics and with women,” Beato said in the ad. “Richard Carmona should never, ever be in the U.S. Senate.”
Carmona’s campaign fired back the next day with an ad in which another former female boss of Carmona’s, this one at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, vouched for Carmona’s ability to work with women and men alike. “Rich treats everyone with respect,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female.”
Carmona used Flake’s ad to paint his opponent as a desperate politician. “This really best exemplifies the kind of politics Congressman Flake is involved in,” he said. “Getting in the gutter, throwing mud with baseless accusations.”
Flake defended the ad by arguing that Carmona’s temperament is an important issue in the campaign: “Dr. Carmona has not served in an elected position, and so when you’re looking at somebody to look at how they would operate in the Senate where you have to have the right temperament to do so, then this is certainly relevant.”
Flake finally took issue with Carmona’s characterization of him.
“Whenever I bring up a difference, I’m politicizing things,” Flake said. “But when you bring up differences, then it’s based on policy. That just doesn’t wash.”
Carmona responded: “It does wash and here’s why: You are a chronic politician.”
The attacks didn’t stop after the hour-long debate. Later Monday night, Flake launched a new attack against Carmona, alleging that he had failed to vote in the 2010 primary and general elections.
Flake and Carmona will meet in a third and final debate before Nov. 6. The TPM PollTracker Average shows Carmona leading by one percentage point.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.